Community groups and advocates for people experiencing homelessness are concerned about new police powers given to Montreal transit authority (STM) inspectors.
Gradually, starting in July, the agents will become special constables, a status granted by the province’s public security ministry.
“Now that’ll give them the right to make arrests,” said Montreal opposition city Councillor Marvin Rotrand, who criticizes the move. “It beefs up their powers.”
In an email, Quebec Ministry of Public Security spokesperson Marie-Josée Montminy justified the change in status for the agents, saying: “The STM is the second-largest transportation company in Canada and the third-largest in North America. It manages nearly 450 million trips annually. To this end, it must ensure that its entire service is safe for its users.”
The agents will not be armed.
According to metro network executive director Marie-Claude Léonard, special constables can act more quickly when a crime is committed instead of waiting for Montreal police. Also, with the new powers, they can ticket cars blocking reserved bus lanes, or have them towed.
“Right now if a car obstructs a reserved lane the inspector can do nothing,” she explained. “They have to call the police.
Making passengers feel safer, she added, is just good customer service.
Critics of the move, however, say there are several issues with the change.
“There hasn’t been much of a public debate about the STM creating a parallel police force,” Rotrand noted.
Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, agrees, saying because individuals are given more power over citizens, there exists the potential for abuse.
“Basically you need to explain to the public why and secondly, you need to give the public a chance basically to provide input, to comment,” he stressed. “This is what municipal democracy is all about!”
Léonard confirmed that there was no public consultation.
Because of that Niemi wondered if the security situation in the transit network justifies the increased powers.
“Is there a study that was done or a report that will be made public?” Niemi wondered.
Léonard admitted there haven’t been many crimes or situations in which police were needed.
“It’s not a frequent occasion but sometimes it happens,” she told Global News.
Community workers insist there should have been a conversation.
“It’s always better to have more public consultations,” James Hughes, head of the Old Brewery Mission. “We wouldn’t have minded being consulted on it.”
The Mission supports people experiencing homelessness, some of whom take shelter in metro stations.
Still, Hughes admitted that he is encouraged by the change in status for the STM agents because he thinks the new powers could make them more accountable since, as special constables, they’ll be answerable to the Police Ethics Commission.
Montminy confirmed that would be the case: “The appointment of STM inspectors as special constables automatically subject them to the applicable rules of police ethics, which means greater accountability.”
Léonard added that the agents will undergo four additional days of training, including cultural sensitivity sessions, on top of the 13 weeks they have from the province’s police academy. She also said the STM plans to hold a series of information sessions in the coming weeks.
Nakuset Sohkisiwin, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, worries about what the new status will mean for people using the metro for shelter. She hopes the training will include lessons on how to treat the homeless.
“They’re going to be pushing out the homeless population,” she suggested. “The question is how are they going to push them out? Will they use force?”
She also worries about abusive behaviour by agents, saying that there are already problems with racial and social profiling with Montreal police, who are trained.
“Who should the public complain to when they misbehave?” she wondered.
The security ministry did not answer questions about seeking public input before granting the new powers.